Trying to Predict and Prevent Institutional Abuse

It seems as though there is another story in the news every day about the discovery of some type of sexual abuse in a church or school.  This is both a good and a bad thing.  It is good because it means that more victims are starting to come forward, speak their truth and hold their abuser accountable.  This is obviously a bad thing because people continue to be abused by those whom they trust and are in positions of power or authority. 

The more media coverage these incidents gain, the larger the public outcry.  As with any type of sexual abuse, the question becomes, how do we prevent institutional abuse?  We all want to believe that there is some way to screen out those individuals who might be prone to sexually abusing others and not allow them to be priests, clergy, boy scout leaders, teachers, etc.  Despite the prevalence of this form of abuse, there is not a lot of research on institutional sexual abuse as a specific form of abuse.

To try to combat this lack of research and work toward decreasing sexual abuse in institutions, ATSA’s most recent edition of their scientific journal, Sexual Abuse, was dedicated to the problem of sexual abuse in institutions.

I believe that it would be easier for the public to believe that there is something particular about people who abuse others in institutional settings than people who commit sex crimes outside of these settings.  In reviewing the literature on the subject, Harris and Terry (2019) indicate that CSA perpetrators who are in institutional settings possess similar characteristics to those who offend in other settings.  Additionally, the factors that make children vulnerable to abuse are not unique to these settings either.  This makes it difficult to identify those who might abuse and keep them out of situations where they have easy access to victims.

Amrom, Calkins & Fargo (2019), researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, looked at personality characteristics of sexual abusers in the hope of finding a way to identify sexually abusive clergy.  They used the MMPI-2 and MCMI0-III in the study, which are widely accepted personality measures.  What is known from studies of pre-employment MMPI-2s is that clergy applicants tend to present as defensive, extroverted, compulsive, self-confident, uncomfortable with expressions of anger and in possession of a strong need for approval.  Additionally, past research shows us that Episcopal and Presbyterian clergy applicants tend to present as generally well adjusted but do display elevations of narcissistic, compulsive and histrionic traits. 

Amrom et. al.’s study looked at the MMPI-2 and MCMI-III of three categories of people.  The first category was clergy who were sent to treatment for child sexual abuse.  The second category was clergy that were referred to treatment for noncriminal sexual behavior with adults and the third category was clergy that were referred to treatment for non-sexual reasons such as depression or drug or alcohol problems.  The control group was a group of clergy that took the test for pre-employment and had no history of clinical or sexual issues. 

The results of this study indicated that there were no differences between the sexual abuse group and the sexual misconduct group.  There was a difference between the sexual abuse group and the clinical group in that the clinical group showed more signs of psychopathology than the sexual abuse group.  One elevation was found on the Sexual Abuse group MCMI-III scores and that was for the trait of Aggressive/Sadistic subscale.  Ultimately, the authors opined that the MCMI-III and MMPI-2 were not able to distinguish between the Sexual Abuse group and the other three groups suggesting that these personality measures are not very helpful when it comes to screening out possible future sexual abusers from the clergy applicants.

Another study in the special edition by Spraitz and Bowen (2019) looked at the grooming techniques used by priests who have sexually abused.  Some studies into the topic have shown that, in addition to traditional grooming techniques, clergy will use their role as priests or as an extension of God as grooming technique when abusing parishioners.  The researchers analyzed records from several Archdioceses and unsealed records that all involved priests or monks in sexual abuse cases.  From these files they created a taxonomy of grooming techniques in the priest sexual abuse cases.

Grooming is the term used for the process that a person uses (normally an adult with a child victim) to create a “special” relationship with a victim and create opportunities to abuse.  In this study, priests used the following techniques:  1) giving alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to the victim, 2) giving gifts to the victim, 3) taking the victim on overnight trips, 4) physical contact, 5) using mentorship or friendship, 6) playing favorites, 7) creating a relationship with the family and 8) abusing the position of respect and reverence. 

Like other studies in this special journal edition, the researchers found that the abusive clergy in their sample were no different from non-clergy who use grooming to sexually abuse .  The technique of abusing the position as a person of God was not an overt form of grooming. They found that the use of this technique may not be “purposeful, overt, or done consciously in all instances.”  There were clergy who did use this technique overtly but not many in this study.

In short, the studies in this special issue of Sexual Abuse confirm that (for the studies published) the individuals who perpetrate sexual abuse in institutions are not significantly different from those who abuse outside of institutions.  These results are frustrating as it would be a boon to the prevention of sexual abuse if there was a way to predict who might abuse versus who might not. 

The research will continue and hopefully, in the future, more work will be published that can help prevention efforts.

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